highway with automobiles under a sign that directs traffic to the Key Bridge
Source: Domestic Preparedness (2024)

Week 2 – Restoring Infrastructure and Instilling Resilience

The incident involving the container vessel DALI and the Francis Scott Key Bridge has led the news cycle and professional discussions for days. Many news reports point to the 1980 Sunshine Skyway Bridge collapse when the motor vessel SUMMIT VENTURE collided with a support pier, killing 35 people. However, that was not the last such incident:

  • September 22, 1993: The tugboat MAUVILLA allided (i.e., a moving vessel struck a fixed object) with the Big Bayou Canot Bridge near Mobile, Alabama. The resulting impact deformed the rails on the bridge. Eight minutes later, Amtrak’s Sunset Limited derailed, resulting in 47 killed and 103 injured.
  • September 15, 2001: Four loaded barges allided with the support column supporting the Queen Isabella Causeway Bridge over Laguna Madre near Port Isabel, Texas. The incident resulted in eight deaths and three people rescued after their cars plummeted 80 feet into the water below.
  • May 26, 2002: The towboat ROBERT Y. LOVE allided with a pier of the Interstate-40 bridge over the Arkansas River in Webbers Falls, Oklahoma, killing 14 people and injuring 5 others.

It does not take a large vessel hitting a bridge to result in a tragic incident. The AP found 35 such incidents between 1960 and 2015, which killed a total of 342 people. These incidents happen and will happen again (with the most recent barge allision on the U.S. Highway 59 bridge over the Arkansas River on March 30, 2024, near Sallisaw, Oklahoma) without actions to mitigate them.

According to the 2021 Infrastructure Report Card:

There are more than 617,000 bridges across the United States. Currently, 42% of all bridges are at least 50 years old, and 46,154, or 7.5% of the nation’s bridges, are considered structurally deficient, meaning they are in “poor” condition. Unfortunately, 178 million trips are taken across these structurally deficient bridges every day. In recent years, though, as the average age of America’s bridges increases to 44 years, the number of structurally deficient bridges has continued to decline; however, the rate of improvements has slowed.

A recent estimate for the nation’s backlog of bridge repair needs is $125 billion. Estimates show that we need to increase spending on bridge rehabilitation from $14.4 billion annually to $22.7 billion annually, or by 58%, if we are to improve the condition. At the current rate of investment, it will take until 2071 to make all of the repairs that are currently necessary, and the additional deterioration over the next 50 years will become overwhelming.

Preparedness officials and policymakers should consider the following local-, regional-, and national-level recommendations.

Local and Regional (Short-Term Goals)

Efforts that support the restoration of local and regional infrastructure will be the immediate focus of activities to enable one of the busiest highways and 9th largest port in the nation to restore operational capacity and economic viability. This will require significant funding from the public and private sectors to complete recovery and restoration activities and enhance long-term resilience.

Recovery and Restoration

The most recent data available on March 31, 2024, Steven Weiss, the Chief Underwriting Officer and Founder of Incarnation Specialty Underwriters, succinctly captured the impact on the Port of Baltimore (9th largest in the nation) in a personal e-mail:

Baltimore is the sole export coal terminal on the east coast for northern Appalachian coal (used for metallurgical use in Europe and brick making in India). The port handles approximately 1,000,000 intermodal containers annually. It takes a lot of dedicated space and stevedoring [loading and unloading cargo onto vessels in ports] to handle the Baltimore-bound cargo (vehicles, bulk coal and containers). Port workers will be out of work or commuting to other ports until the problem is fixed. The longer it takes the less likely these jobs will return to Baltimore. Other ports (Hampton Roads, Charleston, Savannah, and New York/New Jersey) will likely see an uptick. This move will likely increase the cost of doing business and lead to higher potential business interruption claims. FedEx and Amazon also have large import facilities here and while the operations can be moved, the costs and potential job losses will be felt locally. Traffic will naturally increase on other roads in the vicinity as this is a choke point for East Coast traffic – this will lead to delays and higher costs. Many of the larger companies will have a well-thought-out master plan of resilience, but many smaller ones (think of the small trucking companies, the folks that clean and prep the cars or handle the cargo) may not have a built-in plan and workaround. Additionally, the shipping lines blocked from Baltimore deliveries are declaring Force Majeure, thereby not assisting their clients in getting their cargoes back to Baltimore thereby increasing those costs.

According to Thomson Reuters:

Force majeure events are usually defined as certain acts, events or circumstances beyond the control of the parties, for example, natural disasters or the outbreak of hostilities…. Its underlying principle is that on the occurrence of certain events which are outside a party’s control, that party is excused from, or entitled to suspend performance of all or part of its obligations.

These concerns can be addressed by establishing an interagency effort (“Baltimore Recovery Task Force”) as soon as possible to manage the long-term restoration of infrastructure in and around the Port of Baltimore. This task force would focus primarily (but not solely) on highway and maritime as those are the currently impacted modes. Led by the U.S. Department of Transportation and comprised of representatives from the Federal Highway Administration, the U.S. Coast Guard, the Army Corps of Engineers, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Maryland Department of Transportation, Maryland Department of Emergency Management, the Maryland Port Administration, Baltimore County, and the City of Baltimore, this Task Force would lead recovery efforts, broker resources, manage funding, coordinate activities, and inform stakeholders of recovery efforts through regular, comprehensive updates. The sooner this Task Force is established and functioning, the sooner the long-term effort could focus on recovery. “Restoring Infrastructure and Instilling Resilience” might serve as a shared vision and a catchy motto for this Task Force.

Resilience

FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell declared 2024 the “Year of Resilience.” Long-term resilience needs to be built into any recovery effort to minimize impact from future incidents. Public and private sector entities that depend on the Port of Baltimore and I-695 for activity to support and sustain business operations are no doubt implementing their continuity of operations plans (for public sector entities, such as the U.S. Coast Guard Yard in Curtis Bay, Maryland, which performs significant maintenance activities on the service’s fleet of cutters and small boats) or business continuity plans (for private sector entities such as the Maryland Cruise Terminal, a host of break bulk facilities and terminals, and local entities that support daily port operations). Master Continuity Practitioners and Certified Business Continuity Practitioners are well-versed in developing and implementing these plans. These practitioners could help public and private sector entities that have not created these plans or are struggling to apply them at this critical time. Otherwise, entities may struggle to produce goods or provide services, which affects regional capabilities, the supply chain, and long-term economic vitality.

National (Long-Term Goals)

Actions at the national level also could enhance the resilience of the infrastructure and supply chain.

Infrastructure

The U.S. Coast Guard defines an island protection system as:

A protective island built around a bridge pier; typically a sand or quarry-run rock core protected by outer layers of heavy rock riprap for wave, current, and ice protection. The island geometry is developed to stop an aberrant vessel from hitting a pier by forcing it to run ground.

The U.S. Congress could mandate these systems for future bridge construction over navigable waterways where a pier is near transiting vessels and provide grants to bridge operators to offset the cost of retrofitting them onto existing bridges. Making this structure part of the initial construction is significantly easier than retrofitting it afterward. Of course, this will most likely be costly, requiring environmental impact statements and design approvals, possibly disrupting transiting vessel traffic, and being workforce intensive. Regarding island protection systems, Engineer Scott Horan, who recently retired as the Director of Public Works for the City of Manassas, Virginia, stated in a personal e-mail to me on March 29, 2024, that:

Resources required include but are not limited to, cranes, machinery handling equipment, concrete batch plant, steel/concrete reinforced piers, work barges, hopper barges, tugboats, workboats, shoreside support facilities, quarry rocks (rip-rap), wood, fill, and of course manpower. All wrapped in an expedited schedule that will more than likely see some type of 24/7 work schedule requiring a large professional workforce.

In concert with this, the public and private sectors could conduct a gap analysis of transportation infrastructure as well as transit and commodity flow patterns. Emphasis should be on determining how and where disruptions might occur and the most effective means to reroute mass transit and commodities. Although not eliminating economic impacts, analysis can help highlight the complexities and lessen the overall impact.

Management

The U.S. Coast Guard states on its Vessel Traffic Services webpage that:

The purpose of a Vessel Traffic Service (VTS) is to provide active monitoring and navigational advice for vessels in particularly confined and busy waterways…They encompass a wide range of techniques and capabilities aimed at preventing vessel collisions, rammings, and groundings in the harbor, harbor approach and inland waterway phase of navigation. They are also designed to expedite ship movements, increase transportation system efficiency, and improve all-weather operating capability.

The U.S. Coast Guard currently operates 12 Vessel Traffic Services throughout the United States in Prince William Sound, Puget Sound, Valdez, Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles/Long Beach, Houston-Galveston, Berwick Bay, Louisville, Saint Mary’s River, Port Arthur, Tampa, and New York. It is time for the Coast Guard and an interagency team to study major U.S. port complexes not listed here to see which, if any, could benefit from establishing Vessel Traffic Services. These findings could prompt Congress to commit funding for the activation of these additional services, contributing to maritime safety and security as well as long-term critical infrastructure protection along the vital marine transportation system.

During large-scale responses, the Coast Guard employs a “Marine Transportation System Recovery Unit” in the Planning Section. Chapter 16 of the Coast Guard’s Incident Management Handbook from May 2014 describes Marine Transportation Recovery as a mechanism:

[T]o facilitate the recovery of the [Marine Transportation Recovery] following a significant transportation disruption and to work effectively with maritime stakeholders to ensure the expeditious resumption of trade. The goals of [Marine Transportation Recovery] recovery are to facilitate the return of critical infrastructure and essential government and commercial marine services to a functional, if not pre-disaster, status (i.e., short-term recovery), and assist in providing a bridge to permanent restoration measures (i.e., long-term recovery).

The primary goals are:

  • System stabilization,
  • Short-term recovery, and
  • Transition from short-term recovery to long-term recovery.

With the interconnectedness of transportation networks, consider expanding this into a “Transportation System Recovery Unit,” where the Coast Guard’s current unit would form a component with added highway, rail, air, and pipeline components. A member of the U.S. Department of Transportation with Emergency Support Function-1 or Transportation Systems Sector experience could lead this unit. Additional unit members could be from federal, state, tribal, local, and private sector entities impacted by the incident. With the right skill sets, this team could assess the impact, plan recovery, and provide an economic outlook on the overall impact and short- and long-term implications for the region and the nation. The Transportation System Recovery Unit could be exercised at least once a year during regional exercises with a transportation component and support Emergency Support Function 1 – Transportation when the National Response Framework is activated.

These recommendations are not all-inclusive, with more lessons learned and improvement plans developing as additional information becomes available. Timely and effective implementation of any of these could mitigate the potential impact on transportation infrastructure and the global supply chain.

Joseph J. Leonard Jr.

Joe Leonard, CDR (ret.), is a nationally recognized emergency responder, incident manager, and trainer with 44 years of U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Army, volunteer municipal fire service, and private-sector experience responding to natural disasters, oil spills, hazardous materials releases, marine fires, mass rescue operations, mass care and shelter events, national special security events, and maritime homeland security events. He is currently the president and chief executive officer of the Unified Services Consulting Group, LLC. He was recognized with the prestigious U.S. Navy League’s Captain David H. Jarvis Award for Inspirational Leadership and was named a Fox News “Power Player of the Week” on 11 September 2005 for his services as the FEMA-designated Area Commander-Houston Area Mega-Shelter Operations following landfall of Hurricane Katrina. He holds certifications as a Master Exercise Practitioner, Master Continuity Professional, Certified Emergency Manager, Coast Guard Emergency Management Credential, Certified Homeland Protection Professional, and Certified Port Executive. He has a bachelor’s degree in history from the Virginia Military Institute and a master’s degree in engineering technology from Murray State University. He is a graduate of the National Emergency Management Executive and Advanced Academies.

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